In May, an international team of scientists will extract ice cores from the glacier on Bolivia’s Mt. Illimani and transport them to the Concordia Research Station in Antarctica. These freezing ice samples will become the world’s first library of archived glacier ice.
It’s all part of an effort to preserve climatological “memory” that is threatened by climate change.
"The glacier is a trove of information,", Patrick Ginot, one of the coordinators of the international Ice Memory project told EFE, a Spanish news agency.
The compressed snowcap that sits on Bolivia’s second-highest peak dates back 18,000 years — and contains a veritable treasure trove of information that could help reconstruct aspects of past climate conditions.
According to UNESCO, mountain glaciers are “the only direct natural records we have of variations in atmospheric composition.”
But rising temperatures brought on in the last El Niño have begun to melt a layer of snow, which could wipe out the top layer of the glacier’s ice and with it a vast source of data.
“We’re really close to losing the site,” Ginot told Co.Exist. “It’s really an emergency to extract the ice cores before another warm event will happen.”
This “ice-core heritage” mission is the second and more challenging phase of the larger conservation effort — called “The Ice Memory project” — administered by France’s Grenoble Alpes University.
Last August, the team removed ice from the top of Mont Blanc in the Alps, which was easily reached by helicopters. This year, with the Illimani glacier suspended nearly 21,000 feet above sea level, the team will have to reach the peak by foot.
Six-person teams will spend days camping in order to acclimatize themselves to the frigid temperatures, and another few weeks drilling all the way down to the mountain’s stone.. They will trail 4,500 pounds of equipment with them on their way to the summit.
They are undertaking this gargantuan effort now in order to leave valuable information to future researchers, as technology still doesn’t exist to be able to read it all.
"The idea of Ice Memory is to extract three cores, so you have to stay three times longer than a normal expedition," Ginot said. "Then we'll carry the samples down from the summit of the mountain by foot, down to the road, where they will be shipped to our freezer in La Paz."
Samples split into segments 3.28 feet long will be sent by boat to Grenoble, France, where they will stay until 2020, when the Antarctic cave is prepared for examination and testing. Another will be examined and tested in cooperation with a team of Bolivian scientists.
Scientists expect that Illimani will contain specific data about the impact of pollution from La Paz, around 50 miles away. This step will be pivotal in helping date volcanic eruptions and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, contributing to the overall cause of lowering pollution emissions.
The Ice Memory team hopes that their first two efforts set an example for research groups in other countries to take similar initiatives — as the cave in Antarctica is said to be “large enough to house samples from 50 sites.”
Even with global warming, Antarctica will serve as a natural freezer the mean annual temperature at the site stays a chilly -65.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
The scientific legacy of this project could pave the way for critical future discoveries, in what is undoubtedly a race against time.